The Agama Level 1 Intensive program really lives up to its name – it IS intensive!
We chose to attend the optional morning meditation sessions at 7am each day, which made it even more intensive. Our program, Monday through Saturday each week, was as follows:
8.30-10.30am Hatha Yoga class
11am Eat breakfast (it’s not advisable to eat in the two hours before a Hatha Yoga class, or immediately before meditating)
11.30am-3.30pm Personal time – swim, shower, do laundry, answer emails, have a nap if required (many days it WAS required), have lunch before 2pm if you are going to eat a second meal, read the course notes (which are extensive)
4pm-6pm Hatha Yoga class
6.15-8.30pm Hatha Yoga lecture
We already knew that it’s a bad idea to eat within two hours before sleeping, and we had no intention of staying up until 11pm or later, when we were already waking at dawn, so we didn’t try to eat after the lecture. Many people did, though.
Fortunately, on the Agama campus is a good restaurant, which understands about vegetarians (and even vegans!), and makes great, tasty food. We ended up falling into a pattern of having one large meal after the morning class, and just using nuts, bananas, and the occasional chocolate brownie to fend off any hunger pangs in between. There were surprisingly few hunger pangs, actually, given how much physical activity we were doing.
The course content was a pleasant surprise, being a huge amount of information from the original, traditional documents outlining the Hatha Yoga system, and regular comparisons with the messages of various spiritual traditions, from Buddhism to Christianity to Hinduism.
There is a Buddha outside the Level 1 yoga hall, and a Shiva inside.
But what does yoga have to do with religion?
I’m so glad you asked.
You see, we in the West have been subjected to a bit of a hoax when it comes to yoga. We were presented with yoga as something which contortionists do, and which, when practised in a milder form, can have health benefits for the average person. Yoga is a physical activity, as far as we know.
It turns out that this is so far from the truth as to be laughable.
The physical movements which we in the West call “yoga” are just one part of the Hatha Yoga system – and not the most important part, either!
Yoga is a pathway to a particular experience, an experience which many religions claim to own exclusively, but yoga is not, itself, a religion.
One guru, who had attained the state of enlightenment via the worship of the Hindu goddess Kali, proceeded to convert to Buddhism, Islam, and then Christianity, each time practising precisely as he was instructed by each religion, and reaching exactly the same state of enlightenment again and again, using each religion’s particuar set of practices. His conclusion was that there are many paths, but they all reach the top of the same mountain. Yoga, therefore, takes no position when it comes to religion.
Hatha yoga is an entire science (and by science, I mean the Eastern process of making repeated observations and documenting the relationships which recur consistently, not the Western scientific method of setting up a hypothesis and then testing it) of the process of refining human consciousness to the point where it can experience “universal consciousness”, something that a religion would describe as a “spiritual communion”, or a “visit from the Holy Spirit”, or “reaching enlightenment”, or “reaching nirvana”, or “attaining samadhi”, or “attaining Christ consciousness”.
Advanced practitioners of hatha yoga in India have belonged to the Christian, Sikh, Hindu, and Muslim religions, and many have been Buddhists (although Buddhism doesn’t claim to be a religion). There have even been atheists!
Many of those people spent a lifetime conducting experiments and recording the results. Many of those experiments have been repeated thought the centuries, and still give exactly the same results. Agama yoga has nothing unique, because everything taught there is centuries old. At the same time, Agama has something completely unique – an uncontaminated transmission of only the information which has been tried and tested, over and over again, for centuries.
That said, Agama have also slipped in information about some more recent discoveries in areas such as nutrition, EEG read-outs from brains in various states of consciousness, and so on. Also, apparently, since the definitive text on Hatha Yoga was written two thousand years ago it has been discovered that instead of the six levels of enlightenment listed there, there are actually eight. Or maybe more.
For the average person struggling to keep their mind focused on their meditation for five minutes straight, the existence of even more, even higher, levels of enlightenment might mean very little. But for Level Six enlightened gurus with time on their hands and a competitive spirit, it’s always motivating to know that the mountain goes even higher, and others have already planted their flags on the next peak.
The Hatha yoga system includes yamas (don’ts) such as non-violence, non-stealing, non-greed, truthfulness, sexual continence, and niyamas (dos) such as purity, contentment, discipline, study, and spiritual aspiration. It also includes methods for making everyday activities into spiritual practice (karma yoga, the yoga of action), methods for attaining enlightenment through worship of your chosen deity (bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion), and even methods for becoming enlightened in your sleep (nidra yoga). (You do have to be conscious while you are asleep, though, which takes some practice!) You can even become enlightened just by sitting on the beach and contemplating the mystery that is life while allowing your individual self to dissolve into the sunset …
Thousands of people over thousands of years have grappled with this problem – communion with the Divine, the universal consciousness, the “all-are-one” is possible, but how do we get from here to there?
The yamas and niyamas help to “clear the decks” of things which might otherwise distract a person from their spiritual path. It says in the original text describing Hatha Yoga that the perfect practice of just one of the niyamas (spiritual aspiration) is enough in itself to take you all the way to enlightenment. Most people are less than completely perfect, though, and need to do some other actions as well.
After the yamas and niyamas come the asanas (postures) that we in the West generally know as “yoga”, and pranayama (control of the prana, the life energy). In the West, pranayama is generally referred to as “control of the breath”, and it is a bunch of breathing exercises, completely uncoupled from their original consciousness-raising intent. The breath is closely linked with the movements of life energy in the body, so control of the breath will allow a person to take the gross, material impulses of the body (for food, for sex, for victory over rivals, etc) and convert that life energy to more refined levels like unconditional love, clear thought, and an awareness of the Divine presence.
Having attained this control, a yogi is no longer being “led around by the nose” by his or her physical survival and reproduction impulses. At this point, he or she can begin the next steps – withdrawing awareness from the exterior world, developing intense mental focus, and entering into a state of meditation.
Obviously, for the average person, there is a bit of work to do to reach the state where this shift in consciousness is possible.
The vast majority of people of the planet never escape the clutches of their survival and reproduction impulses. They eat, work, and sleep, seek pleasure and avoid pain, seek success and avoid failure in society, stand up for themselves and those they care about, and occasionally, especially if they have children, experience some unconditional love. To reach higher than this, for most people, requires sustained effort – and the right information to start with.
We were glad to have found such a wealth of information in one place – and offered to beginners, instead of being kept for the “inner circle” of advanced devotees.
And who would have thought that the bizarre Hindu stories about all those hundreds of gods were actually encoded messages about how energy moves in the mind and body, and how to avoid the pitfalls along the path and raise your consciousness to enlightenment?
And here we thought they were just weird pagan deities …
In summary, the Agama Level 1 intensive WAS intensive, but well worth doing.